Better Than: A Cuban cigar.
On Saturday night, Cuban metal band Escape played their first NYC gig at Tobacco Road in Manhattan; last night, they played Saint Vitus in Brooklyn. In so doing, they made history. They are the first metal band from Cuba to perform in the United States. And it took the help of a photojournalist, a film producer, and many metal musicians and fans to get them here.
The story of bringing Escape to the U.S. goes like this…
In 2007, Tracey Noelle Luz was a schoolteacher in New Jersey with a burning passion for photography and a longtime interest in metal. Having travelled extensively in Cuba and become aware of its burgeoning metal scene, she asked her friend “Chiqui” Diaz, a singer who had immigrated to the U.S., to introduce her to his former bandmates–the members of Escape–because she wanted to photograph them. Luz connected with drummer Alejandro Padron and spent a month shooting the band in Havana. The experience sparked a creative flame in her, and in 2008 she proposed the idea of a documentary to the band. They agreed, so in 2009 she quit her teaching job and moved to Cuba to film Escape for most of the next year.
“I feel like this project chose me,” Luz said Monday night at Saint Vitus.
Luz has been working on the film for four years, but Escape have been around since 2000. They are essentially the most famous metal band in Cuba. Last year, they were named Best Metal Band at the Cuerda Viva 2012 Cuban TV Awards, and their album La Hora de la Verdad won Best Metal Album at the International Music Fair Cubadisco. (Download the album for free here.)
It’s taken a coalition of supporters to get Escape to America. Monica Hampton, producer of the acclaimed film Heavy Metal in Baghdad, joined Luz in 2011, and together they established Unblock the Rock, a “movement” that this year helped the band fund visa processing costs and travel expenses so that they could perform at SXSW. Much of this funding came $10 at a time, from downloads of The Red Album, with tracks donated by noted artists including Eyehategod, Alex Skolnick Trio, Black Tusk, and Sound of Urchin.
It also helps that keyboardist Jennifer Hernandez is the daughter of Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez, a renowned Cuban percussionist whose work appears on several Grammy Award-winning albums–not the least of which is Santana’s Supernatural. Fortunately for the Hernandez family, the Cuban government smiles upon Cuban musicians who play Latin music: it’s relatively easy for such artists to obtain permission to travel outside the country. Consequently, Jennifer Hernandez was able to move to the U.S. in 2010, far ahead of her bandmates, because her father was already living here. For the rest of her bandmates, however, “escaping” Cuba has been more difficult. Metal songs that protest oppression are, shall we say, not the best endorsement of a Communist dictatorship.
Back to last night. Escape’s opening slot at Vitus was the culmination of years’ worth of work come to fruition. Most bands who take that stage haven’t had to submit piles of paperwork to their government, repeatedly, to get there. Their friends haven’t asked artists in another country to host benefit shows to raise money to fly them to New York. And they probably don’t have two American teenagers standing in for their two band members who already went back to Cuba. But for Escape, that’s how last night went down.
This is a band who perform from the gut. There’s no better way to say it: vocalist Yando Coy fucking owns. You don’t have to speak Spanish to understand the shouted messages of songs like “Ahora o Nunca” (“Now or Never”) or “Cuba en Rebellion.” The music, driven by Padron’s furious drumming, reflects influences from all styles of metal, from thrash grooves to death metal rhythms. The band is seven members strong–two of whom play keyboards, thickening the songs with a layer of power metal triumph. (And I mean power metal in the best way. If ever there were a band with the right to be triumphant, it’s this one.) When all seven musicians are head-banging in unison, it feels like a victory celebration.
(Those American teenagers, by the way, were Josh Musto of ShitKill on lead guitar and Karina Rykman on bass. Seeing them play with absolute confidence, you’d never know they’d had only six days to learn the entire set. Rykman told me not to print that, but I think that kind of heroic effort deserves recognition.)
There are a lot of ways to look at this show and at its backstory. Luz spoke to me about the shift from “objective journalism” to getting involved with a cause, trying to affect change. She’s certainly made that leap herself, insofar as she’s helped bring this band to the U.S. as a symbol of bridging the gap between two estranged worlds with the bonus of staging a climactic final act for her documentary. But Escape’s playing SXSW and NYC hasn’t been orchestrated purely for cinematic drama: it’s the very real fulfillment of dreams for this band; it’s a cause that other artists have been willing to attach their names to; and it’s historic.
Maybe the best way to look at this event is simply in the context of the music. As Jennifer Hernandez said, outside after the show: “Metal is protest. Everywhere. All over the world.”
Overheard: “I don’t speak English very well, you know. But I don’t care.” — Yando Coy
Critical Bias: Metal.
Random Notebook Dump: It’s 3:20 a.m., and there’s nothing to dump from my notebook.